NBA bubble play has some GMs discussing travel effectson September 11, 2020 at 1:28 am

Since games began on July 30, several NBA general managers and team athletic training officials have noticed that the play looks crisp, players are moving up and down the court with speed, and there were top-notch performances almost every night even though teams were playing every other day at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.

Though it is a small sample size, GMs and team staffers pointed to the same factor: the lack of travel.

“Our guys feel better,” one Western Conference GM told ESPN. “We don’t know if it’s anecdotal, but we’ve got these games and we don’t have to jump on planes [afterward].”

“This is the advantage that we have not had,” said one Western Conference athletic training staffer in the bubble. “We’re always tired … Our guys have been rested. They’ve been fresh. We’ve been able to get them recovered again and again.”

On a call with all team GMs and NBA commissioner Adam Silver in August, Silver mentioned that the quality of play had indeed been impressive, sources with direct knowledge of the call said. Later, a GM said that it had been his observation — and that he was receiving feedback from management, staff and players — that additional rest and lack of travel were playing a role in the quality of the performances, sources said.

A second GM then chimed in on the same theme, sources said, echoing that the lack of travel and additional rest contributed to better play and helped even out the competition. Sources said a league official on the call then brought up the concept of teams heading into cities to play a potential series of games — fly into a city and play the host team in two games over a short time span. The idea, which several GMs considered akin to a baseball homestand, was discussed in an effort to reduce the mileage teams might have to fly during the regular season.

League officials, including Silver, are well aware that the bubble has offered thrilling individual performances and nail-biting finishes, including notable game-winning shots and overtime endings. It’s unclear what factors have played the biggest role in leading to such performances — there’s no true home-court advantage, for example — but these officials are aware that lack of travel and the additional rest and time for recovery have been key components.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Utah Jazz EVP of Basketball Operations Dennis Lindsey also mentioned this concept. “The league … teams specifically and the health performance group has gotten a lot of feedback from the players that the reduced travel, they physically feel better,” Lindsey said. “So, would we ever get to a situation like baseball where you play a team more than one time in the market. Obviously, there’s some business concerns there, but that reduced travel, I definitely think the product is more compelling because of that. The players feel better and, frankly, we need to listen to the players.”

Conversely, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel noted Wednesday that the late starts his team has played have eliminated whatever advantages playing in a centralized location might offer.

“You just remove that element of being in the air, arriving late at night. But our 9 o’clock starts, it feels like we’re playing and traveling during the season,” Vogel told reporters Wednesday. “It’s because you’re getting back to the hotel very late; you’re up late.”

Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts noted previously that the pace of games — playing every other day — likely wouldn’t be possible if travel were involved.

“But for the purposes of this, it’s been good and there’s been plenty of time for players to recover physically and plenty of time for coaches to do their work and prepare for the next game,” Stotts told reporters when his team was playing in the bubble.

Referencing the lack of travel and its impact, one league health official in the bubble said, “That’s been a huge topic of [conversation] around here. But don’t forget — there are also more games in fewer days, so [it’s] hard to isolate and truly determine positive factors here. Overall, the level of play has been great.”

The NBA has made efforts to alter the schedule to improve rest and reduce the mileage flown by teams in recent years. But, as of the 2018-19 season, its last fully completed regular season, NBA teams still flew more than their counterparts in any other major North American sport.

At that time, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, NBA teams averaged 43,534 miles per season, nearly 7% more than NHL teams (40,768 miles), 36% more than MLB teams (31,993) and 441% more than NFL teams (8,049).

In the Orlando bubble, of course, the 22 teams that entered weren’t flying at all.

The team that perhaps benefited from this the most was the Trail Blazers, who have finished first or second in distance traveled in every NBA season since 2008-09. Portland posted an 8-2 record in seeding games to secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race before falling to the top-seeded Lakers.

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard was also unanimously voted the MVP of the seeding games, during which he averaged 37.6 points, the highest of any player in the bubble.

When asked about this topic, Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey told ESPN that he wasn’t yet sure what conclusions could be drawn from a unique situation.

“I think there’s a lot of data points that we really can’t quantify yet,” he added.

However, he later said of the impact of no travel, “We’re seeing the benefit. I think this is consistent across the other teams is you can get treatment right after a game. The time that you would normally be spending in a visiting arena getting showered, getting changed, getting on the bus to the plane and then the altitude affecting swelling — and all that’s eliminated.”

The concept of a baseball-like homestand does present financial challenges, such as trying to sell tickets to see the same two teams play over two or three nights. “In baseball, it’s all about who’s pitching and it’s totally different every night,” said one Eastern Conference GM.

“Basketball could be the same game every night. How do you sell that from a ticket perspective? It’s tough.”

In terms of scheduling, and in potentially doing baseball-like homestands, the league would also face the obstacle of juggling arena dates when concerts and other non-NBA events are slated to be held, though it’s unclear in the current climate if such events will even take place in the near future.

And multiple GMs noted that the league is heading into financial unknowns because it’s still unclear when teams will be able to fill their arenas with fans to make up for lost revenues.

“This business is about to get so incredibly hard with declining revenue,” one Eastern Conference GM said. “To turn our nose up at any ideas [would be] crazy. The baseball idea, I could go with that. I’m not trying to sell tickets, either.”

While the lack of travel has certainly given players more time for rest and recovery after games, the lack of nightlife options has also played a role in promoting rest, though it’s unclear to what degree. Moving forward, several GMs and team health officials say they’re hopeful that this situation — though unique because of the coronavirus pandemic — offers ways to improve.

“I mean, it’s interesting, and I think that if we can learn anything from this, is there a better way to travel?” Olshey asked. “A better way to construct a schedule where it’s less disadvantageous to the teams like Portland and Golden State and Miami — the coastal teams — that have to travel three and four times the number of miles that some of the other teams have to travel and the number of time zone changes. And if we can learn anything from that, it’s really unique, because we’ve been studying it for so long, trying to figure out what the sleep doctors and the injury tracking and everything else.

“But, I mean, this is just kind of an unintended consequence of this environment is that we learned something about keeping player health and safety at the forefront in terms of best practices for travel, that it’s another benefit to having done this.”

Said the Western Conference GM, “If we can cut down the flights by 10 to 20%. I don’t think that can be underestimated.”

The second Western Conference GM said tweaking travel might better level the playing field, too.

“We’re never gonna solve competitive balance when it comes to free agency,” the GM said. “We’re not going to solve competitive balance when it comes to players forcing their way to certain markets by trade. But maybe there’s a way to find ways to make things more competitively balanced — just in terms of rest and recovery, and travel.”

Multiple GMs say that on the call with Silver in which the concept of no travel was discussed, it was also mentioned how potentially reducing travel and improving player health would benefit the NBA.

“If you have any franchise player, and if we can find new, more efficient ways to travel that are less punitive to our players, if you’re going to [give that player] another year with a franchise — what is that worth to you?” a Western Conference GM later asked, paraphrasing what was said on the call. “What’s that worth to the league as a whole, a star-driven league?”

ESPN’s Zach Lowe contributed to this story.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *